Not too far into his clunky but insightful new book Industrial Poetics: Demo Tracks for a Mobile Culture, Joe Amato offers a definition of poetics for which his own book serves as an example. Poetics, he argues, doesn’t have to be either ‘a statement of generative principle’ that explores the ideologies that lead to the creation of poems or ‘an ideological program’ that insists on some specific ideas about what poems should do (31). Instead, poetics can be a ‘generative-ideological demonstration,’ that is, not just a discussion of poems, but an enactment of what it discusses (31). This definition attempts to undermine the split between theory and practice on which much of poetics is based. Amato doesn’t want Industrial Poetics simply to discuss industrial poetics or to tell us what a good industrial poem should do. Instead he wants the book to be itself an instance of the dilemmas and possibilities of industrial poetics. Poetics as poem, poem as poetics, an artistically critical and critically artistic take on the problem of the industrial.
In enacting this definition, Amato divides Industrial Poetics into a number of ‘tracks,’ a reference both to the music industry and to several other puns on the concept of the industrial. Each track is further divided into sections, some of which are poems or feature numbered lists of reflections that recall a work like Ron Silliman’s ‘The Chinese Notebook,’ which plays with the distinctions between philosophy and poetry. Other sections engage in the extended arguments and close readings with copious references typical of academic discourse, although even these sections are broken up by devices that undermine conventional academic practice. And still other sections simply tell stories of his experiences with differing institutions and their concepts of industry.
Industrial Poetics thus resists becoming conventionally academic while at the same time using enough of those conventions still to be recognizable as an academic project that might be (as it has now been) published by an academic press. Amato understands the complexity of the balancing act, and acknowledges that in attempting it, it may be important to show how the act can’t quite work. While the writerly self-consciousness implicit in that approach leads Amato at times to annoying stylistic tics, the result is most often a revealing exploration of, and response to, a series of vital social concerns.
Not surprisingly, the problems with insisting on a self-consciously critical artistry in an era dominated by industrial thinking are quite severe. For Amato the term ‘industrial’ suggests any number of capitalist practices, individual behaviors, and artistic responses. At the very least, there is the industry of production and trade, the quality of heavy-duty strength, the behavior of hard work (the term ‘industrious’), and artistic practices like industrial music. Amato wants to show that the influence of industry affects an ever-expanding range of human activities, and more importantly often defines and controls our relation to those activities. He argues that even the most consciously critical and self-aware contemporary artistry remains greatly dominated by the power of industry. But he also wishes to explore the ways that such artistry can still critique and resist that power.
* Chau-tau-qua n. [pron: shuh-TOK-wuh]
1. Lake, a lake in SW New York state, 18 miles (29 km) long.
2. a village on this lake: summer educational center.
3. an annual educational meeting, originating in this village in 1874, providing public lectures, concerts, and dramatic performances during the summer months, usually in an outdoor setting.
4. (usually l.c.) any similar assembly, esp. one of a number meeting in a circuit of communities.
[Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary]
Amato borrows the concept of the Chautauqua, the traveling tent shows of 19th century America that featured talks and demonstrations on all sorts of subjects, to suggest that his book will similarly move between subjects as it takes on the problem of the industrial. While at times he draws conclusions, at others he seems more devoted to exploring the complex twists of the problems at hand. He actively thinks through numerous possible responses, all with their strengths and weaknesses.
One main strand of the book, and its most consistently compelling, is autobiography. In this case it’s autobiography of a life spent in industry: Amato tells the story of his years first as a professional engineer then as a writing professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The story reveals the growing degree to which industrial controls take the creative and critical elements out of the professional workplace and position the worker as an order-taking automaton who must fit every gesture to the top-down, bottom-line activities of the contemporary capitalist workplace. Workers can be successful only by becoming managers, which requires absorbing and enacting the language of management, in a great degree to the exclusion of other types of thinking and being. The fact that these are Amato’s own experiences eliminates conventional academic distance; he hasn’t just been reading about these things. While hardly melodrama, the stories are still shocking in the narrow-minded, profit and power hungry banality they uncover, and in what they suggest about the future of the American workplace.
His story of the ways in which English professors at IIT risked losing their jobs if they didn’t replace the standards of their own profession with the standards of corporate culture (such as the QCEL managerial philosophy: Quality, Creativity, Ethics, and Leadership) may feel at moments extreme. Yet Amato shows that it’s actually a marker of where much of the academic world is heading. He suggests that this kind of corporate takeover can occur at least partly because the humanities are already infiltrated by standardized modes of language and behavior. Academics, busy standardizing themselves in relation to their own fields, which are themselves defined by standardizing practices, have been for a long time more beholden to industrial thinking than many know and prove relatively malleable to its expansion. More and more writing and literature programs across the country serve as industrial training grounds staffed by industrial trainers. That Amato lost his academic job because of relatively minimal resistance to these standards (his sufficient academic achievement is easily documented) gives a concrete instance of his lack of anything resembling academic freedom.
The book’s final track is also especially interesting. Amato examines various theories about community in poetry, along with his own experiences, to see what if anything about poetry communities can offer alternatives to the domination of industrial thinking. Amato is skeptical of the abstracted and idealistic descriptions of community so prevalent in contemporary poetics, and offers some reflections on the vexed and often very personal conflicts that can suck the interest out of such communities for many potential participants. But he also finds a great deal to admire in the day-to-day hard work that some poetry communities do in maintaining forums in which consciously critical artistic activity still has value. That such forums continue to exist in a society often so hostile to them gives Amato at least a degree of optimism on which to conclude a book that spends most of its time detailing a vast industry of unfreedom and the anguish it causes.
Industrial Poetics covers many other related subjects as well, often in innovative and surprising ways. On the whole, the more structurally risky and tangential sections of the book fare less well than the extended arguments, not because they are risky and tangential but because of the way they handle those things. Amato uses the several long numbered list poems as provocations as much as reasoned arguments. While many of the listed comments are insightful, many others are unremarkably ordinary (‘power is as power does’) or debatable (5). For instance, when he says, ‘please don’t tell me that things have always been this bad,’ one has to raise the question where, when and for whom Amato would locate his insistence on a nostalgia that has recently become a common flaw in leftist theorizing (98). Those lists, as well as the sections of the book using poetic lines, are often successful both as theory and as poetry, but on the whole prove less gripping than his story of life on the assembly lines. His attempts at humor also sometimes fall flat. Influenced by Charles Bernstein, Amato clearly believes in the disruptive power of humor, but it’s one thing to believe in humor and another to be funny, and too often Amato just isn’t. Instead, the book’s tone is more a plodding and earnest worrying regarding its subject, one that insists on not letting go of any nuance.
The book often calls attention to its complicity in academic conventions, or to Amato’s refusal or inability to fit the book to those conventions. He exhibits some embarrassment at the occasional lumbering of his writing style, which he describes, not quite convincingly, as being related to a working class background about which he feels an anxious pride. These concerns about convention and style lead to a few too many asides in which he either apologizes, backtracks, or warns readers that the text might be heavy or boring.
Also, while some of the references seem crucial, others seem tacked on to ensure that the book appears sufficiently academic, a problem which Amato acknowledges but then gives in to. Industrial Poetics tends to self-consciously point to and sometimes parody the process of reference. This move is intriguing at moments, but a verbose distraction at others, and leads to the sense that Amato wishes he hadn’t written some of the passages but did so because that was how to get published. True enough maybe, but it’s hard not to agree with the implication that the book could have been more compactly argued. Still, it’s unfair to place all the blame for that on a marginalized academic like Amato, and his book is hardly the first to be affected by market conventions.
No matter how convincing, all the structural risks and stylized disruptions certainly help bring home Amato’s pressing point: a standardized, professionalized workplace needs at least a semi-non-standard, semi-non-professional response, one that can point in the direction of even more thoroughly anti-professional approaches. The book vividly details the damages that contemporary industrialism imposes on artful thinking, a thinking art, and even on the quality of life for people who may not believe they care about those things. Amato’s thinking about industry only occasionally clouds his thinking about poetry; for instance, the idea that poetry ‘stubbornly persists at the crosshairs of trivial singularity and precariously programmatic method’ underestimates the complexity and vividness of the marks both of singularity and method that poems have long displayed (32). But Amato has as perceptive a set of insights as anyone on the social conditions in which poetry and poetics now operate. Despite his well-earned cynicism, there’s nonetheless an earnestness and idealism about Amato that’s deeply compelling. In a thoroughly contemporary way, he’s somehow archetypal, a man who wants to believe in the way he makes a living. Industrial Poetics makes quite clear the harm that comes to all of us if we give up that struggle.